A year after review, immigrant detainees still treated like prisoners

October 18, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Detentioncenter Immigration and Customs Enforcement is undergoing an overhaul of its detention system, in part focused on making detention centers less prison-like. (Gamma/ZUMA Press)

On Sunday, Pedro Perez Guzman will miss his son’s fourth birthday. Guzman, 30, has been in immigration detention since Sept. 28, 2009, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents appeared out of nowhere and handcuffed him for deportation.

[Immigration1] When his wife Emily — a native-born American citizen — and their son Logan make the trip from North Carolina to Georgia to visit him, they must enter a prison-like facility where they are granted only an hour to speak with him, separated by a pane of glass. But he is able to tell them of the inhumane conditions at the detention center — of the inedible food (he survives on ramen noodles from a small store inside the detention center) and the guards he says demean him for no reason.

Guzman’s assessment of his treatment is not unique. Last October, Immigration and Customs Enforcement released an unusually frank review of its immigrant detention system. The report, by Dora Schriro, former director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, criticized the system for its often poor treatment of the illegal immigrants it houses. The system takes in too many detainees, the report said, and treats them too much like prisoners, even though immigrant detention is a civil — not criminal — process. The report concluded that ICE should improve its facilities and services and create alternatives to detention for some non-criminal illegal immigrants.

A year later, though, many of the promised changes have yet to appear. Though ICE added an oversight office and a tool to help families and attorneys locate their relatives and clients, detainees such as Guzman say the detention system is still badly in need of repair.

Guzman wants to be released entirely. But in the meantime, his family argues he should be a candidate for alternatives to detention. “It’s ridiculous how much money we’re spending on detention when we could be finding something else,” Emily Guzman said. “Ankle bracelets, checking in with officers — anything. These aren’t horrible hardened criminals.”

Guzman moved to the U.S. from Guatemala, illegally, with his mother when he was eight years old. He attended school in the U.S. and then successfully applied each year for temporary work visas. But three years ago, his mother was denied permanent residency, putting his status at risk.

Then last year, when he was settled down in North Carolina with his wife and son, Guzman received a notice of deportation from the government. His mother tripped up in her application interview for permanent residency — she is older and misspoke during the interview, Emily Guzman said — and authorities summoned him to appear in immigration court but sent the notice to the wrong address. In immigration hearings, failure to appear is considered a sign that the accused illegal immigrant may be a flight risk.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers showed up at the Guzman home on Sept. 25, 2009, banging on windows and demanding that Guzman come out. The family stayed put at home for three days, but when they walked outside on Sept. 28, ICE agents appeared. Guzman said goodbye to his family, gave his son a farewell kiss and got in the car.

He has fought his detention, hoping for release under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, which allows some immigrants from Guatemala to halt deportation proceedings. But a judge determined him to be ineligible due to aggravated felony, a somewhat misleading term that can be applied to a wide range of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. In Guzman’s case, the judge pointed to two misdemeanor marijuana possession charges from when he was a teenager to deny him bond or the ability to stay in the country.

Guzman appealed the decision, but to no avail. Although the Immigration Board of Appeals recommended that he be allowed bond, the final decision was left to the original judge, who again denied him bond.

“The reality about the immigration system that I’ve seen is that lawyers don’t have any power,” Emily Guzman said. “The judges decide what happens and what doesn’t happen. You’re really at the mercy of the judge, whether you have a lawyer or not.”

The system has many problems, according to human rights organizations, but among the biggest is its treatment of the detainees. Some argue that illegal immigrants broke the law and should not be in a “Club Med-like” setting, as a spokesman from the pro-enforcement group Federation for American Immigration Reform said. But deportation is a civil process, and immigrant rights groups argue it is too often punitive, as if detainees have been convicted of a crime.

On Oct. 6, Detention Watch Network, the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights released a report card ranking the government’s progress at detention reform. Among the categories in which it received the lowest scores was creating alternatives to detention.

“The most important problem is the unnecessary detention of thousands and thousands of immigrants who don’t pose a danger to the community and are not a flight risk,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of National Immigrant Justice Center. “There’s really no reason to be holding such a large population of non-citizens.”

As ICE steps up its immigration enforcement, groups say reform of the detention system has become even more difficult because the system must deal with more detainees. The Department of Homeland Security announced on Oct. 6 that it had removed 392,000 illegal immigrants from the country in the 2010 fiscal year.

ICE officials say detention reform is moving along, and some visible changes have been made. “Over the past year, ICE has made significant progress in reforming its immigration detention system, prioritizing health, safety and uniformity among our facilities while ensuring security, efficiency and fiscal responsibility,” said ICE spokeswoman Cori Basset.

While changes to treatment of detainees and detention centers are welcome, immigrant rights supporters argue they obscure the injustices inherent in a system where detainees are not granted counsel and can be held for months without a ruling.

“What the agency is proposing is putting paint on the wall and hanging up plants, which is nice, but it doesn’t address the problem of depriving people of their liberty,” said Jacki Esposito, director of policy and advocacy at Detention Watch Network.

The system may see more changes. Immigration detention centers are slated to undergo a makeover to remove some of the prison-like qualities. Detainees will be able to socialize more and have better medical care. Alternatives to detention that would allow some detainees, like Pedro Guzman, to leave the facility may still be expanded.

Until then, the Guzman family is waiting. Pedro Guzman hopes to win his latest appeal after his lawyers successfully convinced immigration authorities to vacate one of his two misdemeanor convictions. If he is eventually deported, Emily Guzman said she and Logan would move away with him — not back to Guatemala, but perhaps to Mexico, Canada or Europe, she said.

“He’s my soul mate,” Emily Guzman said. “I’ll go wherever I have to for our family to be together.”

*Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated Pedro Guzman was denied permanent legal residence. His mother was actually denied permanent residence; Guzman had a work visa at the time. *